Sunday, November 27, 2011
Playing the numbers game...
"The Lutheran Church is so unconcerned about numbers that she looks around and asks: 'Who doesn't belong here?'" - Three Books on the Church
Oh, that we were so blissfully ignorant of statistics. I know not what happens in other Districts, but in mine the District Office requests quarterly updates on the worship attendance, new members, baptisms, etc. I understand the need for numbers and I think most of us are okay with the annual parochial report but it seems so easy to become preoccupied with those numbers. As a circuit counselor I got to see the disarray in some parish registers and know the lament of the District when it comes to orderly record keeping. I am also disappointed to find out there are so many parishes who have failed to send in the timely report each year and so their information is woefully out of date. I have even been on the receiving end of a call only to find out that the numbers quoted in the Lutheran Annual and on the call documents were from years ago and did not present an accurate picture of the congregation as it was (usually much smaller than reported). But we cannot afford to become addicted to the record keeping function and to numbers as the final determination of the Church's success or health.
It occurs to me that the times of greatest growth in the Church were also times when numbers were not the primary indicators of achievement nor were they the things that shaped the church's understanding of who we were or what we were to be about. In the 1950s our church body was opening up and dedicating a new building and filling it with people a couple of times a week or more. Yet we did not have the internet or computer to chart, communicate, or focus the numbers of the mission. We just did what we were called to do.
The other thing about this quote was the question. We have tended to use numbers and statistics as a means of shaming us into doing the right thing. Our poor statistical health has become the constant litany of communication (at least in this District) and remains one of the reasons why we are so apt to borrow outreach methods and programs from other church bodies (indiscreetly, I might add). It is like waving the unpaid bills before the congregation and calling it stewardship! Loehe suggests another perspective. He would have us focus not on who is missing but who does not belong. He would have us see those outside the Church less as the sinners on the express train to hell and more as those NOT YET of the kingdom of God. It may sound like semantics but it is not. It is a sea change of attitude and motivation.
Some time ago I suggested that a paper by Heath Curtis on election was a good starting point. From that paper we are reminded that the number of the elect is for God to know and not to preoccupy us here on earth. Our judgment and focus upon the unchurched should rather be as those not yet of the kingdom of God -- who is to know -- so we speak the Gospel and proclaim the Word of the Cross not to the huddling masses of pagan and heathen but to those for whom Christ also died that they might rejoice with us in the grace and mercy that has sought us out and saved us by grace. The church's mission motive and point of proclamation is always positive, hopeful, and gracious. Even the call to repent is not itself a judgment against the unrepentant as much as it is the means by which they are convicted as to their sin and come to appreciate and trust in the redemption which is of Christ's own doing. God alone can judge and we are not given either to substitute our own judgment or to participate in that judgment. This is something the Church has often lost sight of and whenever we do, it is to our poverty and weakness.
It is like the preaching to the choir that goes on when sermons rail against those who are not in the pews to those who are. We tend to beat up on the people who are there for those who are not. We also tend to preach panic about everything from money to mission as if desperation is the godly motivation for witness, service, and stewardship.
No, I think we need to get appropriate numbers but we also need to make sure that numbers are not in the driver's seat for the larger church or the local congregation. If numbers were the only thing or even the primary thing, it would be easy enough to sacrifice faithfulness on the altar of expedience and fill the pews by giving the people what they want. Yet if we do that, we filling the church building and the nave of hell by speaking to them anything and everything except the Gospel and by giving them anything and everything except Jesus Christ (through the means of grace). We cannot afford to play the numbers game because everyone loses...